Why Was the Statue of Christ the Redeemer Built?

Looming tall of the city of Rio, the famed statue of Christ the Redeemer was built to celebrate Brazilian faith and tradition.

Dec 17, 2023By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator
why was the statue of christ the redeemer built

 

Rio de Janeiro’s monumental statue Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, looms over the city with arms spread wide, acting as an enduring, landmark icon of peace and acceptance. Listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world, this colossal statue is the largest Art Deco sculpture of all time, and the fourth largest statue of Christ, at an incredible 98 feet tall and 92 feet wide. It attracts tourists from far and wide who scale the rocky peak of Mount Corcovado to witness its sheer scale and craftsmanship first hand. But have you ever wondered why the statue was built in the first place? We take a closer look at the circumstances that led to the construction of Christ the Redeemer.

 

To Restore Religious Faith in Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

 

The concept of building a landmark statue on the summit of Mount Corcovado was first floated by Brazilian priest father Pedro Maria Boss in the 1850s. However, the idea was shelved when Brazil became a Republic, and a Declaration of Public in Brazil separated the church from the state. The concept was revisited after World War I, in a bid to restore religious faith and hope into the Brazilian community, which church officials feared was facing what they called an ‘increasing godlessness.’

 

Officials realized placing the state on Mount Corcovado would make it visible from anywhere in Rio, and beyond. Incredibly, the entire project was funded by donations from the people of Brazil, demonstrating how widespread public support for the deeply religious statue was. Even today, the high visibility of the statue has come to represent the enduring Christian faith that still exists throughout much of Brazil.

 

A Dedication to Princess Isabel

Princess Isabel of Brazil, who abolished slavery in the 1880s.
Princess Isabel of Brazil, who played an important role in abolishing slaveryduring the 1880s.

 

There was a brief moment during the 1880s when Rio’s statue of Christ could have taken a very different direction. One of Father Pedro Maria Boss suggested that a statue should be constructed on Mount Corcovado to honor Princess Isabel, daughter of Emperor Pedro II. She played a prominent role in Brazilian history, signing the ‘Golden Law’ in 1888 to abolish all forms of slavery. The law meant all slaves across the country were released and plantations shut down. Boss asked Princess Isabel for funding to secure a monument in her name. However, Princess Isabel reportedly believed a statue of Jesus Christ would be more fitting, referring to Him as the true Redeemer of Mankind. 

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A Celebration of Brazilian Independence

The Announcement of Independence in Brazil, by Francois-Rene Moreaux, 1844
The Announcement of Independence in Brazil, by Francois-Rene Moreaux, 1844

 

The completion of Christ the Redeemer was supposed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Brazilian Independence, by opening in 1922. However, due to ongoing financial issues, the entire project was pushed back by 9 years, finally opening to the public in 1931. Such landmark constructions that marked significant historical moments were becoming increasingly popular in major cities around the world, including the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

 

The Paschal Mystery

Christ the Redeemer seen from above, looking out to the city of Rio de Janeiro beyond.
Christ the Redeemer seen from above, looking out to the city of Rio de Janeiro beyond.

 

The Christ the Redeemer statue was designed to convey the awe inducing divinity of Jesus Christ held by Christian faith, and in particular the riches within his Paschal Mystery. This is one of the central themes at the core of Catholic faith, tying in with the concepts of redemption and salvation. The Paschal Mystery describes the four stages Christ had to endure in order to save humanity from its sin – these are life, death, resurrection, and finally his ascension back into the spiritual realm.

 

Civil engineer Costa da Silva designed the statue with an ambiguous stance that reflects the multiple roles Christ played; on the one hand, his opened arms could be read as a symbol for his self-sacrifice and crucifixion, yet they also resemble arms opened for a welcoming embrace, symbolizing the Christian belief in Christ as a symbol for universal acceptance. 

 

A Message of Hope, Love, and Reassurance

Close up detail of Christ the Redeemer showing the prismatic mosaic of soapstone tiles making up its surface.
Close up detail of Christ the Redeemer showing the prismatic mosaic of soapstone tiles making up its surface.

 

Along with the concepts that were conceived prior to construction, the statue of Christ the Redeemer inevitably took on greater significance and meaning while it was being built, and many of these meanings have endured to this day. Nearly 6 million soapstone tiles that cover the surface of the statue in an intricate mosaic pattern were inscribed by workers with the names of their loved ones on the reverse during construction, investing the statue of Christ with an even greater personal and familial significance.

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.